A new biennial exhibition, with a £10,000 prize, features 24 artists selected from an open call by art world heavy weights: Tate’s Director of Collections, British Art, Polly Staple, Turner Prize nominee Mike Nelson and Towner’s own curator, Noelle Collins.
There’s a lot of good things to be said about Towner International, Towner Gallery’s new biennial exhibition. It celebrates artists in the vicinity of Towner’s East Sussex location—10 have been chosen from Sussex, nearby Kent and Hampshire, 10 from elsewhere across the UK and 4 from international locations. The presentation is excellent, with interesting groupings of works and clear interpretation, and the staff are friendly and well informed. It’s also great to see institutions managing to stage ambitious exhibitions during a time of financial hardship and stringent Covid-19 restrictions. It’s a shame though, that the theme wasn’t selected before the open call, but rather applied afterwards. The catch-all topic “how artists are responding to the [recent] economic, political, cultural, and environmental changes” makes for a generic exhibition that feels it could have taken place anywhere, not within the specific context of Eastbourne.
The majority of work on display centres around the climate crisis or the Brexit debate. Ian Land’s series of black and white photographs, taken while walking the coastal route from Hastings to London, ‘Land of Cockaigne: Travels through Brexit’ (2016-19), reflect the artist’s changing feelings towards the Britain after the country voted to come out of the European Union. He says, “As I walked, Union flags seemed much more prominent than I recalled previously, the multitude of Keep Out and Private signs which had always been there took on a sinister air…For the first time in years, Englishness and the English landscape began to feel alien and forbidding to me.” Julia Crabtree and William Evans’ installation of terrarium-like glass sculptures ‘Seep, Tract, Clenched, Swell’ (2018), contain mini-ecosystems of water, plants and mosses, and stress the importance of interspecies cohabitation at a time when humans risk irrevocably changing the natural order of things. Similarly, Maeve Brennan’s and Saskia Olde Wolbers’ films, ‘Listening in the Dark’ (2018), and ‘Pfui – Pish, Pshaw / Prr’ (both 2018), highlight the detrimental effect human beings are having on the natural environment, even, in the case of Brennan’s film, when people are trying to create positive change with apparent green initiatives like wind turbines.
One of the more intriguing works, and a possible contender for the £10,000 Brewers Award, is Stuart Middleton’s ‘Motivation and Personality’ (2018). This scale replica of a Livestock Handling System—a spiral-shaped cattle chute that calms animals by exploiting their defensive instinct to circle—is made from wooden supports covered with old clothes that have been stitched together to evoke the ramshackle look of internment camps or temporary accommodation. Herding gallery visitors into a labyrinth of unpicked t-shirts and leading them on a pre-defined path, it is an apt metaphor for both Brexit and the control political parties have over the electorate, as well as the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees worldwide.
Another highlight is Omar Vega Macotela’s engraved porcelain artworks ‘The Salviati World Map (1525)’ (2019) and ‘Bestiary’ (2019), which stand out for their clever, if deceitful, use of material—the works are made from porcelain so thin, it’s hard to believe it’s not paper. ‘Bestiary’, which seeks to illustrate how different authors and societies around the world have dealt with the representation of the monstrous, is displayed in vitrines like pages from a rare book. Its delicate, glittering surfaces prove to be a pleasing, if a slightly disturbing contrast to the morbid scenes they illustrate.
For a new biennial with a £10,000 prize, it’s surprising that there is so little new work on show. Most contributions have been shown or commissioned elsewhere (or iterations of them), and one wonders if new commissions would help give Towner International the sense of identity and specificity it needs. One looks forward to January 2021 when the Brewers Award will be presented, and to future years, when, as the reputation of the exhibition grows, its commissioning budget will too.